Saturday, January 16, 2010

Four Poem Drafts

The Isles

Your reason is a snowdrift reason,
icy in and out of season,
cold and sharded frost with flakes
in which no grace or fervor wakes --
but what of reason's South Sea isles,
flush and warm with native smiles?
Golden-hearted breeze-winds sway
to charge the night and warm the day
as by the currents warm and clear
joys go dancing without fear
and on the beach-sand, wet and fair,
the sunrise gilds the scented air.

Crown of Matins

A crown of matins circled her brow,
auroral halo flourishing;
but she was quiet,
breathing softly:
you did not see her.

First Light

Where were you in the morning's morning,
yestermorrow's morn, so redly dawning?
Or where were you when Tempus killed Caelus
and all-devouring Time began to devour,
when Space began to bubble and surge
to foam up Attraction that rules the stars
in unending Ocean, bent around without shore?

Procella Resurgens

The white clouds have a dark lining
where night crowds in, stark, divine;--
the glowering grows, wind builds;--
and now the throes descend on fields,
the day is hidden, suddenly shy,
as its rays are bid from the thudding sky;--
and all creation lies worried, waiting
for fall unabated, flurry unsated,
of gale unfurling
to assail the world.

Friday, January 15, 2010


One often hears the word 'scientism'. I've never really liked the term, since it fairly clearly is misleading as to what it is supposed to describe. The term makes it sound like it has some foundation in actual scientific work, but in fact people use it to describe something that has no such foundation. What people are really complaining about when they talk about 'scientism' is science-fictionism, scientifictionism. That is, the problem is not the appeal to science; the problem is that there is no appeal to science but an appeal to results one's speculative vision of science will eventually reach. This way of drawing conclusions differs from that of someone who is merely trying to describe actual scientific results we have in hand, or even someone who holds the same conclusion but does so because they have considered the alternatives and think them incoherent. So, for instance, while you will find physicalists who are physicalists because they have considered the alternatives and have concluded that they involve serious logical problems, most physicalists are not so reflective, and instead believe in physicalism because of a vision of physics not yet in hand which will offer a complete account of mind and all. Drawing conclusions about the world on the basis of a science we don't have is science fiction.

Now, again, the conclusion itself is not necessarily the problem. One could hold the very same conclusion for reasons that have nothing to do with fictional dreams about what science may be someday. Someone who is a determinist, denying free will, because they think they have a solid argument in hand that 'free will' is an incoherent idea is not believing something on the basis of a science-fiction story they've told themselves; but someone who is a determinist because they think that in the future psychology will be rigorously reducible to physics is. Likewise, the conclusion could even be approximately true, in the way science fiction sometimes is; this has no bearing one way or another. Likewise, one might think a speculatively drawn conclusion really worth thinking about, but have the sense to recognize it as speculative.

The issue is rather the way the conclusion is drawn. The scientifictionist wants us to believe something because science is amazing and so can overcome whatever obstacles we may think exist to the truth of their conclusion. The problem, of course, is that he completely overlooks the possibility that science is amazing and so can discover that the scientifictionist's own conclusion is incorrect. There is nothing holding up his conclusion but his own imagination; and that he is right in his own imagination is neither particularly interesting nor particularly informative for anyone else.

Since scientifictionism is not primarily a matter of the conclusions drawn but how they are drawn, scientifictionists come in many different stripes. Some are reductivists, some eliminative materialists, some nonreductive physicalists, some determinists, some intelligent design theorists. There are others. And, of course, you can find examples of people holding each of these positions for other than scientifictionist reasons. What they share in common is not their conclusions but the fact that they are really just offering the framework of a science fiction story. Such things are quite nice and worthy of serious thought -- as science fiction, not as reasons to believe.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Phantoms of Sublimity

Apologia pro Vita Sua
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The poet in his lone yet genial hour
Gives to his eyes a magnifying power :
Or rather he emancipates his eyes
From the black shapeless accidents of size--
In unctuous cones of kindling coal,
Or smoke upwreathing from the pipe's trim bole,
   His gifted ken can see
   Phantoms of sublimity.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Threefold Bottom

When you read my Remarks again, you will observe, that I place morality solely and entirely on the nature, relations, and fitness of things; for I cannot conceive how any other principle can have the least share in the foundation of virtue. But perhaps you meant our obligation to the practice of moral virtue, which is a distinct consideration; and that I do indeed place upon a threefold bottom, the fitnesses, of things, the moral sense, (not a blind instinct) and the will of God: but interest is no part of the ground of moral obligation in my judgment; for what has that to do with conscience?

Catherine Cockburn (letter of 20 November 1744), in Catherine Trotter Cockburn: Philosophical Writings, Sheridan, ed., Broadview (2006) p. 234. The Remarks referred to include a review of Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses. The threefold bottom here is the same as Warburton's threefold chain, but she is shifting the emphasis. In Warburton's version of divine command theory, moral obligation strictly and properly consists in the sanction of a superior; but he also holds that God has established in us a moral sense and a rational ability to perceive relations of fitness between things as supplementary. (This is Warburton's attempt to assimilate the two major approaches to moral philosophy of the time, the sentimentalist, which grounded obligation on the feelings of a moral sense and taste, and the rationalist, which grounded obligation on the recognition of eternal truths.) Cockburn has a structurally similar view, but in her view it is rational perception of fitnesses that grounds moral obligation, with the sanction of the superior as supplementary.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Criticism and Creation

All criticism tends too much to become criticism of criticism; and the reason is very evident. It is that criticism of creation is so very staggering a thing. We see this in the difficulty of criticizing any artistic creation. We see it again in the difficulty of criticizing that creation which is spelt with a capital C. The pessimists who attack the Universe are always under this disadvantage. They have an exhilarating consciousness that they could make the sun and moon better; but they also have the depressing consciousness that they could not make the sun and moon at all. A man looking at a hippopotamus may sometimes be tempted to regard a hippopotamus as an enormous mistake; but he is also bound to confess that a fortunate inferiority prevents him personally from making such mistakes. It is neither a blasphemy nor an exaggeration to say that we feel something of the same difficulty in judging of the very creative element in human literature.

G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, Chapter X.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Canonic and Logic

One recurring pattern in the history of philosophy seems to be the substitution of a canonic for logic by certain groups of empiricists. 'Canonic' is a word we get from the Epicureans. Epicurus had insisted on three criteria by which we measure whether a claim is true or false: sensations, prolepses (preconceptions or anticipations), and passions. Sensations were the fundamental standard; prolepses arise when we have a great many sensations and therefore begin to anticipate on the basis of our experience; and passions were pleasures and pains. Each of these had immediate evidence (enargeia). On the basis of this we make judgments which may be true or false depending on how they conform to or diverge from these basic starting-points. The Epicureans, of course, developed these ideas at some length: each of the criteria, for instance, was explained in terms of our being affected by the simulacra of things. This "test-science of truth," to use Zeller's apt name for it, is really just a set of guidelines for judging claims on the basis of empirical experience; it wholly occupies the place that logic held for (e.g.) the Stoics.

But there are other cases; Hume is a shining one. As a result of his study of causation, and particularly necessary connection, Hume develops a list of "general rules" by which we may know when things are causes and effects (I paraphrase from Treatise 1.3.15):

(1) Cause and effect must be contiguous.
(2) Cause must be prior to effect.
(3) Cause and effect must be constantly united.
(4) The same type of cause always produces the same type of effect, and the same type effect always arises from the same type of cause. (As he usually puts it, like effects imply like causes, like causes imply like effects.)
(5) Where several different objects produce the same type of effect, it must be by means some quality common to them all.
(6) A difference in the effects of resembling objects must proceed from some point in which they differ.
(7) When any object increases or diminishes in correspondence with the increase or diminishment of its cause, it is an effect compounded of several different effects that are derived from different components of the cause.
(8) An object that fully exists for a time without its effect is not the sole cause of that effect, but only when combined with some other principle.

"Here," says Hume, "is all the LOGIC that I think proper to employ in my reasoning; and perhaps even this was not very necessary, but might have been supply'd by the natural principles of our understanding" ( It seems clear enough that this is essentially a canonic, in the same family as the Epicurean canonic, although it has the advantage of providing some direct treatment of what is usually regarded as a weakness in the Epicurean canonic, namely, its lack of a well-developed account of how things may be explained.

One of the questions that arises in considering cases like these is what would push an empiricist in this direction. A very tempting and plausible suggestion is that this is caused by polarization: empiricists will go this far when there is an opposing position that is able to stake its claim using logic, which is not taken as a set of guidelines for making judgments about sensory experience but as something exhibiting necessity, universality, etc., that cannot be found in sensory experience -- when there are "scholastic head-pieces and logicians," as Hume calls them. This the Epicureans certainly had, in the Stoics, and the early modern empiricists, in the rationalists. What was key was not that Stoics and rationalists appealed to logic but that they appealed to features of it as constitutive of rationality and (with at least some plausibility) as confirming their own position. This forces the empiricist to provide an alternative route for deciding what is true and false, one that does not give succor to the enemy. Explaining the effect in terms of such an opposition seems to be right; but it is difficult to say if such a conflict is both necessary and sufficient.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Spirits and Men by Different Standards Mete

For spirits and men by different standards mete
The less and greater in the flow of time.
By sun and moon, primeval ordinances—
By stars which rise and set harmoniously—
By the recurring seasons, and the swing,
This way and that, of the suspended rod
Precise and punctual, men divide the hours,
Equal, continuous, for their common use.
Not so with us in the immaterial world;
But intervals in their succession
Are measured by the living thought alone,
And grow or wane with its intensity.
And time is not a common property;
But what is long is short, and swift is slow,
And near is distant, as received and grasp'd
By this mind and by that, and every one
Is standard of his own chronology.
And memory lacks its natural resting-points
Of years, and centuries, and periods.
It is thy very energy of thought
Which keeps thee from thy God.

John Henry Newman, Dream of Gerontius, 340-341